Exotic Gardening in a Temperate Climate

Aug 20, 2017

Have you ever dreamed of being able to grow all sorts of unusual exotic varieties of
plants in your garden, but thought you couldn’t because of our cooler winters? Well,
you are not alone. The majority of gardeners that I’ve met have never
given a tropical garden a thought, but really, it is easier than you might think. Down below are a few helpful tips to help you plan your own exotic garden.

Hardy Perennials Can Give an Exotic Feel, Minus the Work
True, there are some tropical plants that you have to overwinter in the greenhouse, causing a lot more
work on your part, but there are an equal amount of hardy plants that can give you that
tropical look without the maintenance. I know what you’re thinking. I am in zone
8a, so I can probably grow tropical plants better than the majority of the country. While that
is true to a certain extent, anyone can have that incredible look of the tropics if they
know how to make the right plant choices. Take, for instance, Hostas. You wouldn’t think
they would be an exotic plant, but when combined with other bold leaved plants, take
on an exotic feel.

Christopher Lloyd, in his book The Exotic Garden, has a whole section
dedicated to hardy plants that give an exotic feel. You might be surprised that he
includes relatively common plants, such as Clematis and Kniphofia, in his
recommendations. It is not about what plants you grow, so much as it is about how you
use them. In my own exotic garden, I love using Crocosmias as a corner or edging
plant, due to their hot colored flowers and grass-like leaves, which are an unusual
combination for a hardy plant. Actually, when I first saw a Crocosmia growing in a
tropical garden down in coastal Louisiana, I thought it was some type of tropical Gladiolus, not a
hardy perennial. It was not until I got home that I researched what it was and figured
out that it was hardy to zone 5!

Include Some Tender Perennials
Now, I know that I have been talking a lot about hardy plants that look tropical, but now I
would like to move on to tender perennials. How many tender perennials you have in
your tropical garden, depends on how much work you are looking to put into it. If you
are a dirt-under-the-nails sort of gardener, you might consider using more tender plants
in your design. I personally have about a half and half mix of hardy and tender plants.
Unfortunately, this means that I will have to dig up all of the tender plants that I wish to
preserve for next year and move them into a protected space until next spring. I enjoy
the task of starting from scratch each year with all of my tropical plants, but really, it is
not absolutely necessary.

Don’t forget annuals when you are planning
Bold leaved annuals, such as Castor Beans and Persian Shield are an integral part of my garden. Also, annual climbers, such
as the Black Eyed Susan Vine(Thunbergia alata) are a great way to easily add some color to a trellis or
tuteur. Even common annuals, such as Zinnias and Gomphrena are extremely useful
edging plants. If they are combined with bold-leaved plants, such as bananas, Cannas,
and castor beans, they really can bring your garden to a whole new level. Annual Grasses such as Pennisetum setaceam ‘Rubrum’ (my personal favorite) are also a good option to add varying textures and forms to an exotic garden.

Finally, Experiment!
Have some fun playing around with various combinations of hardy
and tropical plants. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen someone who is eager
to try out the exotic gardening theme in their yard, but is afraid they will make mistakes.
Of course you will make mistakes! It is after all, a garden. I know I probably say this
every time I talk about garden design, but gardening is all about experimentation;
trying out new things. After all, how are you supposed to learn if you never try?
Overall, the exotic gardening them can be tricky, but is also very rewarding if
properly carried out. You can do it!

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